Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Author Q&A: Jayne Amelia Larson author of Driving the Saudis

Jayne Amelia Larson, author of the book Driving the Saudis, stopped by for a Q&A.

1. How did you end up being a chauffeur after getting degrees from Cornell and Harvard?

Frankly, I was desperate. I was a struggling actress and producer when a huge financial abyss gaped open in front of me that I should have seen coming but didn’t; I fell in, hard, and was forced to get a regular steady job that could bring in regular cash on a regular basis to get myself out of it. Strangely enough, I wasn't the only overly educated chauffeur on the job. I met a law student, a retired engineer, a sculptor from Yale – all moonlighting as drivers. We all do what we have to do to get by. But I didn’t tell my father until way after the fact; he would have been disappointed that all my education was being squandered.

2. Did you need any special training to be a chauffeur?

Really, no! Which I found a tad unnerving; I’d always assumed chauffeurs had special training. There were a series of tedious written tests that I had to pass to determine how well I knew LA streets (without GPS) and if I was familiar with the best high-end restaurants, shops, and nightclubs. Then I had a mind-numbing week-long “training” session at the premier limousine company where I was first employed during which we studied traffic light patterns (so boring!), memorized the airlines and their gates at local airport terminals (more boring!), and practiced easing to a stop to assure a smooth ride for the client (somewhat useful).

3. Weren't the people you drove puzzled by you? Did they like you? Did you like them? Did you have favorite people?

People were consistently amazed to have a female chauffeur - Americans and Saudis – I was truly an anomaly because there are so few. Many people really liked me because women bring a whole different sensibility to the job – sometimes I took on the role of an understanding sister or shrink or short time caretaker. Often they wanted to talk, or rather they wanted me to listen. My favorite people where those that treated me respectfully and politely but those were few and far between – most people were pretty dismissive, and often rude as if they were better than me. When I get in a limo now, or even a taxi, I always make a point of acknowledging the driver. I know how terrible the job is and any moment of warm human contact makes it slightly more bearable. And I am a big tipper – cash – it’s the only way to go.

4. If they don't allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia, why did they let you drive them here? And what did you have to wear? 

I was specifically hired by the royal family to drive a teenage princess; they preferred to surround her with women and I had heard that they were very happy that a woman might be available. However, they were puzzled that I was a chauffeur and not a concierge, a nanny, or a secretary. They were truly mystified that a woman would choose to be a chauffeur. I did not have to wear a black cloak, hair cover, and veil as people expect (nor did the Saudi women wear them here in the US, even though they must at home); but I was told to make sure that my neck, arms, legs, and ankles were modestly covered at all times.

5. Did they know you were an actress and a writer?

In general, the Saudi women (because I drove the women only) and the servants didn't seem interested in my professional life at all, only my personal life: Was I married? Did I have children? What was my husband like? Why did my husband allow me to work and even to stay out so late at night? Where were my parents and did I have brothers and sisters? Did they miss me if we all lived so far away? Family stuff was of paramount importance.

6. How does your background in story development in film affect your work as a writer/performer?

My experience with the Saudis was so unique that I wanted to capture every detail and great stories are made up of great detail, and often the truth is even stranger than fiction. I also believe very strongly in the power of a compelling narrative to convey important themes. I recognize that the creative process is often a collaborative process – whether it’s a film, a play, or a book. Although I’ve written this book myself and it has sometimes been a lonely process, it is the fascinating people whom I met on the job, and the input of the talented people who have helped me put the story on the page that have hopefully elevated it to something way beyond what I could have done myself alone.

7. How were you able to make yourself invisible (to be the fly on the wall as you say) and how did you feel about that? 

At first I resented it (truthfully it even made me furious), but then realized that I could understand so much more of what was happening around me when I stopped talking and just took in what I saw and heard. It was a difficult adjustment for me, especially as an actress who was accustomed to demanding and getting a certain amount of attention, but it was an eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it – talk less and listen more, and the world opens up around you in unexpected ways.

8. Do you feel like you got to know any of the people you interacted with or was it more of an observation?

I did feel that I got to know many of them (as well as you can in a few weeks’ time) but I often had to distance myself. It was the only way I could get through the experience relatively unscathed because the job was so grueling. But people always surprise you, whether you think you know them or not, and I am still often amazed by what I saw and learned, about myself and others. One nanny in particular, Malikah, was truly an extraordinary and exceptional person and I’m honored to have known her. She was a devout Muslim, and a gracious and generous woman who not only taught me a lot about her culture, but about myself as well.

9. Would you ever want to trade places with the women of the Saudi royal family?

Except for maybe one glorious million dollar shopping spree day (assuming I could keep all the goods), I don't think I would ever want to switch places with a Saudi woman, there are too many constraints, internal as well as external from societal mores and family, and I don't think I could stand the pressure or limitations. I’m too much of a loose cannon and I’d probably end up in big trouble.

10. The story explores themes regarding the subjugation of women, how has the experience changed or informed your views in terms of your own life as an American woman?

The young Saudi women (as well as most of the African, Arab, and Filipina servants) were obsessed with American pop culture. They knew all the top songs, newest fashions, latest limited edition sneakers, what new movie was out (always PG-13 or lower because they weren’t allowed to see R movies) and the stars in it, and the name of Paris Hilton’s favorite accessory dog (her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell). In the Kingdom, they can’t explore and experiment the way we’re free to do here and they embraced as much of our culture as they could with complete and total abandon, like kids let loose in a candy shop. I’ve been told that their life at home is so confining: no public movie cinemas, very few public concerts, no plays, nothing that’s a shared public experience. I can’t help but look with a new appreciation of how I live–exposed to the creation of new things every day and to be able to share them with others, and the freedom to be the creator as well–with so many choices and so much opportunity in the west. Recently, a 13 year-old Saudi girl was sentenced to 90 lashes with a whip (in front of her school mates) for being caught with a mobile camera phone in her all-girls school. Phones are forbidden in the schools because it’s one the few ways young women can communicate with the boys on the outside. They share pictures and music and ideas, just as kids do here but they get whipped for it. And in the US we celebrate Lady Gaga… and I am happy for that. And of course, women can drive here and hopefully they will soon in the Kingdom too. But I prefer riding my bike. I have a very low carbon imprint when I am not chauffeuring.

11. Do you ever wonder what happened to those women who worked for the family? Have they tried to reach you again?

Hardly a day goes go by that I don’t think about them, especially some of the young women who became dear to me. I miss them. For a few years, I received occasional phone calls from the servant girls (and always on New Year's Eve wishing me a “Happy Happy Happy New Years! Janni! We love you Janni!” which I thought was so sweet because it's a western holiday not Middle Eastern). I always toast the girls now on every New Year. But I've never heard from any of the other people I drove in the royal family or the entourage.

About the book:

Actress, producer, and occasional chauffeur Jayne Amelia Larson offers a funny and insightful memoir about the time she spent as a driver for members of the Saudi royal family visiting Beverly Hills, detailing her invitation inside one of the world’s most closely guarded monarchies.
When the Saudi royal family vacationed in Los Angeles, they hired Jayne Amelia Larson, an actress struggling to make ends meet, to be their personal chauffeur. She’d heard stories of the Saudis’ outrageously generous gratuities and figured that several weeks at their beck and call might be worth her time. But when the family arrived via their private jet with an entourage of forty and millions of dollars in cash, Jayne Amelia realized she might be getting into more than she bargained for.

For weeks, Larson observed the family’s opulent lifestyle: they occupied four luxury hotels, enjoyed day in and day out shopping binges, and servants catered 24/7 to Princess Zaahira and her entourage. From the thirteen-year-old princess who slapped down $100 dollar bills at a supermarket and didn’t bother to wait for her change to the nanny who ran away in the airport the moment she was handed her passport, the stories Larson shares are bizarre, poignant, and illustrative of the profound contradictions and complications that only such massive wealth can create.

Driving the Saudis, based on the author’s successful one-woman stage show, is a vivid portrait of the Saudi royals as few ever get to see them. As funny as it is insightful, this is a true-to-life fable for our times. But at its heart, it’s a story about the corruption that infinite wealth creates, and about what we all do for money.

About the author:

Jayne Amelia Larson is an actress and independent film producer based in Los Angeles, and has also been an occasional chauffeur between gigs. She has degrees from Cornell University and from Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre Institute. Her one-woman show, Driving the Saudis, has been performed in Memphis, Ithaca, Boston, Roanoke, and Vienna (Austria), and won Best Solo Show at the 2010 New York Fringe Festival. She is one of ten children and is an excellent driver. Learn more at www.drivingthesaudis.com


Post a Comment